Is the ‘Nigerian God’ bigger than our God?
Written by Jack ZimbaAfrica’s most populous nation, Nigeria has many influences on the continent. Be it in business, art, music or culture, the West African country is spreading its dominance across the continent with ferocity. But nowhere is Nigeria having more influence in Zambia than among the evangelical Christians.
Mention Nigeria anywhere and what usually comes to mind is scam, big-money corruption and an endless stream of low-budget movies which have become the country’s trademark.
But the West African nation has recently assumed a more pious image among many Christians in Zambia who now look up to the country as a ‘Rome’ of sorts.
Not too long ago, a huge influence, especially among Zambia’s evangelicals came from America through the Christian television, Trinity Broadcasting Network TBN, with preachers such as T.D Jakes, Benny Hinn, Creflo Dollar and Kenneth Copeland being among the most influential.
However, many evangelicals seem caught up in the religious vortex sweeping across the continent from Nigeria, whose influence can now be seen in many churches today.
Nigeria, with its population of 160 million almost divided in half between Christians and Muslims, boasts of some of the biggest and wealthiest churches on the planet. These include the Winners’ Chapel led by David Oyedepo, Redeemed Christian Church of God and Deeper Christian Church of Reverend William Kumuyi.
Perhaps, the first of the Nigerian churches to arrive in Zambia was the Deeper Christian Life church, which established a church in Lusaka’s Kamwala area in 1990.
I remember attending the church in its formative years as a young teenager and wondering just how different things were done there and how less I understood the preacher who spoke in heavily-accented English.
Since then, however, many Nigerian churches have opened up branches in Zambia, spreading not only the gospel, but the West African culture as well.
“Religion comes with culture, but not every culture is good.”
It is common nowadays for Zambians to sing Nigerian praise songs with the accompanying dance. Also common are the Nigerian terminologies ascribed to God such as igwe. Some Zambians have even adopted Nigerian accent when praying.
This influence also extends to dress as some women have adopted the Nigerian traditional attire, with elaborate headdress and colourful wraps around their waists.
Nigerians are some of the most boisterous people on the continent and this inevitably shows in the way they pray and worship God. This attitude has also found its way in many churches in Zambia today.
And so our ‘amens’ and ‘hallelujahs’ have become louder; our prayers more forceful and animated, thanks to the influence of the ‘Nigerian God’.
Nigerians themselves have a remarkable obsession with God’s name.
One of the country’s human rights activists and author, Shehu Sani, wrote in the BBC Focus on Africa magazine about five years ago: “If the name of God is patented in Nigeria, more royalties would accrue to the country’s coffers than is generated by oil.”
Currently, Nigerian pastors are some of the most sought- after and last year saw a large number of them invited to conferences organised by churches in Zambia.
At a day’s conference for men I recently attended, all three speakers were Nigerian. While at another dinner hosted by Dr. Chris Kwakpovwe, a Nigerian pastor and author of the devotional booklet, our Daily Manna, the guest list included Catholics and people from other non-protestant churches.
And to some Christians, Nigeria has become what Mecca is to Muslims – a place of pilgrimage and spiritual renewal. Many have also travelled specifically to seek divine healing for terminal illnesses.
At the Winners’ Chapel in Lusaka, dozens of congregants travel to Lagos each year for the church’s annual conference held at its headquarters. It is a much cherished retreat for most of the believers making up the congregation.
So why is there such a growing affinity for the ‘Nigerian God’?
Pastor Bruce Msidi, who pastors Mount Zion Christian Church in Lusaka’s Kabulonga Suburb, argues that it is not so much about Nigerian gospel or way of worship, but about the Africanness “we lost to the British colonisers some two centuries ago.” According to Pastor Msidi, unlike many African countries, Nigeria managed to escape much of the influence that came with the European colonisers, hence maintaining its culture.
“The Nigerians still preserved a lot of who they are as Africans and you can see this in the way they dress and the food they eat,” he says. Pastor Msidi, who also has a Nigerian pastor – Paul Adefarasin as his mentor, says it is this factor that makes the ‘Nigerian God’ more appealing. “This is why the Nigerians seem to be having a greater impact on us, because they are relating to our nature more than the Europeans have,” he says.
“Even when you look at the way they pray and come against, say, witchcraft… Witchcraft to the Europeans is a little bit diluted, while in the African context, we understand it and if you see the way Nigerians will present the gospel and how they will be forceful against witchcraft, as an African, you understand that perfectly. So it’s almost as if they have brought another gospel that we never had before,” says Pastor Msidi.
He says Zambians could still have embraced the ‘European God’ in the African context without losing their culture. “It’s almost as if we were Europeanised and now we are seeing our fellow Africans and we are beginning to see a part of ourselves that we lost,” he says. “So as we are embracing Nigerians, we are actually re-embracing ourselves, because the God and religion we embraced, we embraced it in the eyes of the Europeans. We didn’t know we could have still embraced it in our African context.”
Perhaps what has also helped to propagate the Nigerian gospel is Nollywood, with its rugs-to-riches-themed movies where good always triumphs over evil through prayer. It is not uncommon to see a Nollywood movie end with a ‘to God be the glory’ phrase.
But is the ‘Nigerian gospel’ all good? There is need to find a middle line, says Pastor Msidi; warning against extremism usually associated with such movements.
“Unfortunately, anything that is presented to any people has the possibility of extremism,” he says. He says even the way the Europeans presented the gospel had a lot of extremism, including slavery and the creation of classes among African tribes.
“Even as the Nigerian gospel has come, truth be told, it has come with certain extremism that is unnecessary and uncalled for,” he says. A number of Nigerian pastors have also been involved in unholy activities including armed robbery, adultery and extortion. Pastor Msidi says the way some Nigerian pastors demand sums of money before praying for people may not necessarily be a biblical concept, but one borrowed from the African witchdoctors.
“If you were to go to a traditional healer, he would always ask you to bring something before he could attend to you. Unfortunately, that has crept into the gospel message,” he says. He argues that the kind of respect and honour accorded to some men of God also may not necessarily be Christian, but is largely a part of the Nigerian culture with its deeply entrenched ‘chieftaincy system’ which accords demigod-respect to any member of society who exerts influence through wealth or power.
“I think as Zambians, we are very blessed because we have had extreme European gospel with its extremes and now we are receiving the Nigerian extreme gospel. We are blessed because we have the capacity to balance based on what we have received,” he says.But there is no stopping to the growing influence of Nigerian churches.
Today, the Winners’ Chapel Lusaka is one of the fastest growing churches in the capital, attracting mainly young people who find the church’s theme of successful living irresistible. The church now has a membership of about 30,000, making it the largest single congregation in the country.
The Redeemed Christian Church, with its aggressive outreach programme, has spread even to rural Zambia. In the little town of Solwezi, for example, the church has three branches within a few hundred metres. The Prophet TB Joshua has become a household name and assumed stardom status for many of his followers, and his smiling portrait hangs the walls of many homes and can be seen on several car bumpers, as well as front-door posts of many houses.
Although he is yet to establish a branch of his church in Zambia, Prophet TB Joshua’s television ministry, through his satellite Emmanuel TV, has some very ardent viewers among Zambians. So, where does this leave the local churches, numbering over 15,000 across the country? Some local churches have already reported loss of membership to other newer churches that have Nigerian connections or are run by Nigerian pastors, or reflect – even in the very least sense – an image of the ‘Nigerian God’.
“There is some amount of destabilisation,” admits pastor Msidi. “The good part about that is that if Zambian pastors have taken the Zambian people for granted, by not taking time to study, to pray and apply themselves effectively, then this is a wake-up call to them.”
Yet it is this same aggressiveness of the Nigerians in whatever they do that has won them admiration among some Zambian clergy like Pastor Tande Mulenga.
“I have seen about four Nigerian pastors who came and started churches in classrooms, but they are all building their own churches now while our pastors from Zambia are six, ten years in classrooms,” says Pastor Mulenga.
The pastor, who has had close association with Nigerian pastors, says it is easier to identify with the Nigerians because they are Africans. “Since we are Africans, we can easily identify with Nigerians. They have villages just like us and they have made it from the villages,” he says. But Pastor Msidi warns against gullibility in receiving the Nigerian gospel, saying people need to know the scripture for themselves in order to be able to judge what is right and what is wrong. “Religion comes with culture,” he says, “but not every culture is good.”
This article was first published in 2013